Baseball Profile
Always a Hit
Memories and Dreams: The Official Magazine of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
(Spring 2022), Jerry Crasnick
The achy knees that dogged Tony Oliva through the second half of his career cried out for attention and prompted his teammate, roommate and close friend Rod Carew to embark on more than a few recuse missions - fetching ice to dull Oliva's pain.
But for the first eight seasons of his big league career, it was American League pitchers who were looking for help against Oliva, whose legendary skill at the plate made him one of the game's most celebrated hitters.
Elected to the Hall of Fame in December by the Golden Days Era Committee, Oliva grew up in a family of 10 children in the town of Pinar del Rio, Cuba, a major tobacco growing region and a center of the cigar industry. His father, Pedro, was a successful semipro ballplayer who turned to farming and grew tobacco, mangos, oranges and other crops on a 150-acre plot.
Much of the family's land was seized by the Castro regime in the late 1950s, but baseball was a constant, and it wasn't uncommon for the Oliva clan to choose up sides and play three games on Sunday.

L-R: Tony Oliva, Rod Carew, Kent Hrbek
Tony Oliva's given name was Pedro Oliva II, but he assumed an alternate identity out of necessity. After Twins scout "Papa Joe" Cambria signed him out of a Havana tryout, Oliva lacked the documentation to get from Cuba to Spring Training in Florida. So he borrowed his brother Antoine's birth certificate as a step toward acquiring a pass­port. From that time forward, he would be known as "Tony."
Oliva overcame a language barrier, several bouts of homesickness and some culture shock on his way to stardom. He hit .342 in 337 minor league games in Wytheville, Va., Charlotte, N.C., and Dallas-Fort Worth before cracking the Twins' Opening Day roster in April 1964. He led the American League that season with 217 hits, 109 runs, 43 doubles, 374 total bases and a .323 average to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award and his first of three career batting titles.
Oliva thrived thanks to a "see the ball, hit the ball" mantra and a flair for making solid contact. He was selected to eight All-Star teams, logged a .304 career batting average and struck out just 645 times in 6,301 big league at-bats. He topped out at 55 walks in a season, preferring to let the bat head fly on pitches at his shins or at the letters. His quick hands, keen eyes and sweet swing prompted some writers to wax poetic.
"Watching Tony Oliva hit a baseball is like hearing Caruso sing, Paderewski play the piano, or Heifetz draw a string across a bow," wrote Phil Elderkin of the Christian Science Monitor.
The elite pitchers of Oliva's day found him problematic as a rule. Oliva hit .320 against Luis Tiant, .344 off Jim Palmer, .356 vs. Sam McDowell, .365 off Tommy John, .429 vs Dean Chance and .467 against Rollie Fingers. He launched seven ho­mers in 112 at-bats against Mel Stottlemyre and eight in 93 at-bats off Catfish Hun­ter.
But after a severe knee injury in 1971, playing in the field became difficult - even for a man who won a Gold Glove Award in 1966. He underwent eight knee surgeries through the years and missed almost an entire season in his prime, transitioning to a full-time designated hitter role at age 34. He retired three years later.
Oliva was a baseball savant with the capacity to both hit and teach. After his retire­ment in 1976 he spent 15 years dispensing encouragement and common sense advice as a coach in the minors and majors for the Twins. Kent Hrbek, the local boy-made-good for the Twins, had an out-of-body experience in Spring Training of 1979 when he went down to the batting cage in Melbourne, Fla., and encountered his baseball icon.
"To me, it was like watching God walk around the clubhouse," Hrbek said. "If Tony told me to go out and stand in the freeway, I would have done it. I idolized the heck out of the guy. Anything he told me would go in one ear and then stay there."
Baseball fans in Minnesota and surrounding states are already making plans for Induc­tion Day in July. That includes Hrbek, who has reserved a spot for his 42-foot motor home at a campground near Cooperstown. He can't wait to make the trip with his girlfriend and see his hero shaking hands, posing for photos and signing autographs with a smile.
"The only difference now is, when he signs 'Tony Oliva,' he has to put 'HOF' on the ball," Hrbek said.
 


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